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Indonesian President Joko Widodo has acknowledged “gross human rights violations” in his country’s history and vowed to prevent any repeat.

He cited 12 “regrettable” events, including an anti-communist purge at the height of the Cold War.

By some estimates, the massacres killed about 500,000 people.

President Joko Widodo
President Joko Widodo … “I strongly regret that those violations occurred.” Image: Thai PBS World

Widodo is the second Indonesian president to publicly admit the 1960s bloodshed, after the late Abdurrahman Wahid’s public apology in 2000.

The violence was unleashed after communists were accused of killing six generals in an attempted coup amid a struggle for power between the communists, the military and Islamist groups.

“With a clear mind and an earnest heart, I as [Indonesia’s] head of state acknowledge that gross human rights violations did happen in many occurrences,” Widodo said at a news conference outside the presidential palace in Jakarta.

“And I strongly regret that those violations occurred,” added the president, more commonly known as Jokowi.

Democratic activists abducted
The events he cited took place between 1965 and 2003 and included the abduction of democratic activists during protests against former leader Suharto’s iron-fisted presidency in the late 1990s.

The president also highlighted rights violations in the region of Papua — the eastern region bordering Papua New Guinea where there has been a long-running independence movement — as well as during an insurgency in the province of Aceh, in the north of the island of Sumatra.

The government was looking to restore the rights of victims “fairly and wisely without negating judicial resolution”, he said, but did not specify how this would be done.

“I will endeavour wholeheartedly to ensure gross human rights violations never happen again in the future,” he added.

However, rights activists said his admission failed to address government responsibility.

Call for legal action
Amnesty International’s Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid called for legal action to be taken against the perpetrators of these acts.

“Mere recognition without trying to bring to justice those responsible for past human rights violations will only add salt to the wounds of the victims and their families. Simply put, the president’s statement is meaningless without accountability,” he said.

Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch said Widodo “stopped short of explicitly admitting the government’s role in the atrocities or making any commitments to pursue accountability”.

Widodo recently received a report from a team he commissioned last year to investigate rights violations.

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